Singapore’s row with Indonesia over the naming of its warship after the two Indonesian marines who set off a bomb in MacDonald House in Orchard Road – Usman (also spelt “Osman”) bin Haji Mohd Ali and Harun bin Said – appears to be drawing to an uneasy close after two months of dispute.
The bombing of MacDonald House occurred during the time of Konfrontasi with Indonesia, shortly after Singapore’s merger to form the Federation of Malaysia. The bomb went off on 10 March 1965 at about 3.07pm in MacDonald House killing three civilians – Susie Choo Kay Hoi, Juliet Goh Hwee Kuang and Yasin bin Kesit – and injuring at least 33 more.
The dispute over the naming of the warship came to light when Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin
put up anote on Facebook
on 7 February criticising
Indonesia’s decision to name the warship after Usman
The Indonesian response appears to be one of indignation, however. According to the Straits Times report, “Warship named 'only to honour heroes': Indonesian Navy” (8 February 2014), Indonesian officials had said that its decision to name the warship was purely to honour men their nation had recognised as heroes more than 45 years ago. One comment by international law expert Hikmahanto Juwana is particularly noteworthy for his attempt to compare Usman and Harun to Indonesian nationalist heroes. The Straits Times reports:
International law expert Hikmahanto Juwana, from the University of Indonesia, said a soldier who dies in action is not acting on his own, but in the name of his country. He drew a comparison with how Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was criticised for visiting the Yasukuni war shrine. Mr Abe regarded those enshrined as heroes while his country's neighbours saw them as war criminals.
"If Singapore's concerns are heeded and Indonesia changes its policies, then names like Prince Diponegoro, Sultan Hasanuddin, I Gusti Ngurah Rai and many more should not be used as the names of universities or airports in Indonesia, because the Dutch might be offended and raise concerns next," he said, citing well-known heroes who fought against Dutch colonial forces.
Minister for Defence
Dr Ng Eng
Hen, in a strongly worded statement
in Parliament on 18 February, said that for a ship named "Usman Harun
" to sail on the high seas would be a “bête
noire”, “unleashing resentful feelings and spirits from the past, a constant reminder of the military aggression and atrocious crimes committed by the Indonesian marines who killed or irreparably damaged the lives of innocent civilians and their families in Singapore”. He added:
Singapore will not allow this military ship named "Usman Harun" to call at our ports and naval bases. It would not be possible for the SAF, as protectors of this nation, to sail alongside or exercise with this ship.
As DPM Teo, Min(FA) and I have said to our counterparts, the naming of this ship will have consequences on bilateral relations. Already suspicions and resentments have heightened on both sides, setting back many decades of relationship building in defence ties. We want good defence ties and close military-to-military relationships with Indonesia. But strong defence ties can only be built on mutual trust and respect, expressed through appropriate acts that underscore friendship and amity.
On 16 April, in an exclusive Channel NewsAsia
interview with General Moeldoko
, chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces, the General apparently apologised
for the naming of the warship:
Once again I apologise. We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all. Second, relations between the two countries are on the mend. There've been communications among leaders. Singapore's Chief of Defence and I have spoken.
Dr Ng Eng
the “apology” as “a constructive gesture to improve bilateral defence
ties between our two countries”.
Two days after the apparent apology, General Moeldoko “clarified”
his views by stating that the apology had been for the fact that “the decision to name the ship was final and would not be changed”.
Singapore appears more ready to move on on the matter than Indonesia in spite of the confusing turn of events. According to the Straits Times, Dr Ng’s response in “Singapore will accept Indonesia's apology at 'face value', says Ng Eng Hen” (20 April 2014):
Singapore will accept Indonesia's apology over the naming of a new warship at "face value", stressing that both countries have to find ways to move beyond it, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Sunday.
He was responding to clarifications by Indonesia's Armed Forces Commander, General Moeldoko, who said on Thursday that he did not apologise over the naming of a new navy frigate Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines behind a 1965 bombing in Singapore.
The general had said in a television interview with Channel News Asia this week: "We have no intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all… I apologise." But on Thursday, he claimed that the media had "twisted" what he said and he had merely said sorry for Indonesia's "final decision" to name the warship.
Dr Ng told reporters at the sidelines of a community event on Sunday that Singapore should not be drawn into the latest development. "It is not productive to get involved in their domestic politics," said Dr Ng.
He acknowledged that Singaporeans may feel perplexed or even upset over the twists and turns, but emphasised that it is important to focus on what the country believes and stands for. "We sometimes may not fully understand the ways of others," he noted.
Moving forward, the minister said that it is vital for both countries to move beyond the incident and rebuild ties based on mutual respect of each other as equal, sovereign nations. "I am confident we can rebuild trust and confidence that has been built up over many, many decades," Dr Ng said.
While it is clear that this dispute is a matter of national significance and pride, some comments made in the course of the dispute bear greater scrutiny. In particular, the comparison of Usman and Harun with Indonesian nationalist heroes is deeply misguided.
Why Usman and Harun are not heroes
National heroes are lauded for their acts of greatness for the sake or on behalf of their country.
The resistance against foreign colonial powers who impose their rule against the will of the people is a respectable act. It is an exercise of the right of self-determination, which is recognised under Article 1(2) of the Charter of the United Nations. As the International Court of Justice held in the East Timor Case at para. 29:
In the Court's view… the right of peoples to self-determination, as it evolved from the Charter and from United Nations practice, has an erga omnes character… The principle of self-determination of peoples has been recognized by the United Nations Charter and in the jurisprudence of the Court… it is one of the essential principles of contemporary international law. [Emphasis added]
Nationalism is legitimate and peoples are fully entitled to resist foreign colonial rule.
In contrast, the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state is a violation of international law, prohibited under Article 2(4) of the Charter. Konfrontasi was an entirely unprovoked attack against the territorial integrity of Singapore that had nothing to do with self-defence.
Particularly aggravating was that the attack was made against unarmed civilians in an act of sabotage. Then-Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin, on behalf of the Federal Court, held that "the explosion at MacDonald House was not only an act of sabotage but one totally unconnected with the necessities of war" (Osman and another v Public Prosecutor[1965-1967] SLR(R) 402 at para. 21). The Privy Council agreed, adding that:
"The immunity of non-combatants from direct attack is one of the fundamental rules of the international law of war" and "non-combatants are not, under existing international law a legitimate military objective".
The men are not heroes.
As it was back then as now, the issue is one of respect for the sovereignty and integrity of other states. It is a matter of national pride and not to be taken lightly.
Singapore should, at least, not allow the warship to come anywhere near Singapore, nor sail alongside it.
It is not constructive to allow the dispute to drag on, but Dr Ng Eng Hen may have allowed the Indonesia to get away with the naming of the warship too easily by accepting the apparent apology at "face value"…